I had a chance this summer to meet a gentleman who was, at the tender young age of 46, enjoying his first Highland Heavy Athletics meet. We struck up a conversation and his story amazed me. I asked him to share it and I’m pleased he agreed. I know a fair bit about setbacks and comebacks, and about force of will. (I’m also a sucker for any story involving barbells and physical redemption). Matthew’s progress is a testament to the power of understanding where you are, but refusing to accept it. It’s about the will to move forward with whatever tools you can, however far you can. -Dave Van Skike
Someone wrote “A knight in shining armor is a man who has never had his metal tested”. Well I guess I’m no knight in shining armor. I call my story “The Great Do Over”. In my mind everything before January 2009 was another life. The downward spiral is the period between then and say August of 2011. Everything after that is no longer something that happened to me, it is what I’ve chosen to become. Which is something more than I ever thought I would be. This is my story: it’s about a lot of things, injury, illness, pain, and depression. Mostly it’s about making a choice and meaning it.
I guess a little background is in order, starting with a word of advice. Shouldering big lumber beams and walking on a slippery gangway is not a smart thing to do. In early January 2009 I suffered a multi-level spinal injury (ten prolapsed disc), two blown shoulders and one traumatic vascular injury. A prolapsed disc is the same as a herniated disk, the outer part of the disk has a tear which in turn allows the soft insides of the disc to spill out. I have 5 of these in my cervical spine. Those are the ones that cause my hands to ring with a constant feeling of pins and needles. I imagine that Yoda feels this when he uses his jedi skills to shoot lightning from his fingers. There are two more in my thoracic spine causing a constant feeling of being stabbed in between my shoulder blades. The other three are in my lumbar region and are the reason I feel like I’m cut in two all the time. I always feel like I’ve got broken bones in my feet and have had numerous x-rays to rule out foot fractures. I have bilateral sciatica at all times. As if the spine and shoulders weren’t enough, the vascular injury resulted in a full on ischemic stroke less than three months later. On April 1st, 2009 I dropped like a rock in the kitchen and spend the next several days in an intensive care unit in Seattle. Apparently, vascular injuries can swell for upwards of three months. When this happens in your neck you can, as I did, have a full on stroke. By far the scariest thing ever.
What I ended up with was a level of pain that is really indescribable to most people. By August 2011, I was 44 years old, I weighed 325lbs and the left side of my body slow and atrophied . My liver was failing from all the medications and I had developed type 2 diabetes. I only slept for 2 hrs at a time, waking up with muscle spasms. I had become proficient at angry, hated pretty much everything, and ran everyone out of my life. I lost my wife, most of my family, and pretty much all of my friends. I was depressed and very much considering suicide. That’s when I made my choice, not to die, not to survive, but to live. I decided to live every moment of my life with as much love as I could possibly muster.
I get asked , pretty regularly, how I started exercising with all my challenges. My answer is always the same. It all started with stopping the pain meds, eating real food in lieu of crap, walking my ass off and ten little exercises. These are the exercises, cat and camels, bird dogs, fire hydrants, supine single leg bridges, supine bridges, prone scorpions, supine scorpions, childs pose, cobras and shoulder dislocations. Three sets of ten or three 30 second holds for the scorpions, cobras and child poses. Three times a day I did my routine without fail. For me the challenges involved with this were mostly related to making the choice no matter what. I would have days where my body would spasm with pain during and after each session. Getting started was nothing short of an epic battle every morning. I’m convinced that I can talk myself into anything. In five months I had lost 50 lbs and felt like I could move well enough to start lifting and taking group fitness classes.
If memory serves me correctly I worked up to participating in eight group fitness classes a week, but decided to cut that back to twice a week in October of 2012. I felt it was time to start lifting to see if I could get some strength back. I had developed a pretty solid core and was able to move without losing my balance for the most part. I shied away from squats and deadlifts as I was still afraid of making the pain worse by injuring my spine again. I had learned from the previous months that form was everything. So I did lightweight for form, at all times. By December, I had discovered that the lifting was making it easier for me to not only cope with my physical pain, it was making it easier for me to cope with everything. It was the endorphins, I was literally getting a long lasting case of “runners high” from lifting. This is about the time I first stepped under the bar for squats, 95 lbs of glory. Later that week I caught the same glory stepping up to the bar for a dead lift.
This is where the fun really started for me. I was hooked on endorphins and the big lifts gave me the most. It is now a little over eight months from that first day at the power rack. My numbers are nothing special, but I can squat or get four hundred off the floor, even on my bad days. In the last year I’ve run a 10k, and fallen in love with Scottish Heavy Athletics. I’m not very good yet, but I’ve met some amazing people and can’t imagine not being involved with the sport. I love the little mental game I have to play when I set up for a lift , a throw or an exercise movement. You know, lets go, set it up, get your position and take it for a ride.
All in all, I probably have had hundreds of hours of physical therapy, one lumbar surgery to restore bowel and bladder function, hundreds of hours of one on one pain therapy and at least a thousand hours in the gym. I no longer take any medications, my liver has healed and I’m no longer diabetic. I’ve had to really learn to take care of myself so that I can be there for others. Mostly, I feel compelled to be on the lookout for people who are suffering through, hoping that I can offer something. I’m taking my Personal Trainer Certification Exam in a little over a month and hope to give back as much as I’ve gained.
Self compassion is the one thing I learned that really made everything so much easier. Making mistakes is just part of the learning process. Starting with what I could do and building upon it was the method that brought me here. It was never easy, and still isn’t. Giving up is no longer part of the plan. I know the feeling of beauty that comes from getting everything I can out of this body of mine. I smile as an exercise in freeing myself from the pain. It is nice to have gained this feeling of being in the light. This may sound funny, but I love the constant pain. I would feel lost without it and think of it as a superpower. I guess one could define loss as being an opportunity to succeed. I’m grateful for being able to be a father to my girls, and I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to test my metal. Being a father and having some scars in the armor are the things define who I am.